May 23-- HARTFORD, Conn.-Years into an expanding fiscal nightmare that includes a gap between revenue and expenses of more than $40 million, the UConn athletic department is well past the point of combining half-measures with belt-tightening in search of a sustainable remedy.
The time has come to blow up the operational model in place-by lopping off the bottom third of it.
UConn must do away with some teams and programs.
A bunch of them.
Eight of the existing 24, I'd say.
That's awful to write or suggest for many reasons, primarily the ruination of college experiences and the elimination of jobs and people that comes with such extreme action.
It is sad. But I don't see any way around it.
The university is toiling in its own fiscal quagmire, facing estimated revenue losses between $65 million and $129 million, depending on when students return to campus. "Deep cuts" are necessary, UConn chief financial officer Scott Jordan told the Board of Trustees this week, and the onus has been placed on entities campuswide to play a significant part in forming a solution.
The athletic department's responsibility is to create a 25% reduction to that $40-plus million gap by 2023. That means a three-year plan toward shedding $10 million off an annual university subsidy that allows the Huskies to make ends meet.
It is mountain of money.
The Big East-bound Huskies can sell more tickets and, yes, fans are purchasing basketball seats at a highly encouraging rate, even in the midst of a pandemic that has decimated the economy. UConn can slash budgets, curtail travel, tweak other operational expenses, find all sorts of ways to save a buck here and there.
It won't get them to $10 million.
It won't equal a long-term fix.
UConn athletics must reinvent itself, embrace a painful last resort, the only viable option.
UConn, which has more than 650 student-athletes in a given year, sponsors six more programs than the Big East average of 18, and more than most of its NCAA Division I peers.
Don't do that anymore. Get down to 16, the minimum required for Division I participation. Know how bad it looks and feels but understand that, on the other side, you can tell remaining teams and people the following:
This is awful and we hate it but it is necessary. It will not happen to you. As we move forward, your program will have the support of the department and university in ways that will allow you to compete at the highest levels, always. We are moving forward with a model in which we can all achieve the success we dream of. You will have everything you need.
There is a budget workshop scheduled for June 12, at which point an athletic department proposal is expected to be submitted. And there is a Board of Trustees meeting scheduled for June 24, at which point that proposal is expected to be voted on.
"I think that's going to be a decision that we have to make," athletic director David Benedict said Friday when asked about cutting sports. "The numbers around the country are what they are and we are an outlier among our peers when it comes to the number of sports we sponsor ... and the number of student-athletes we sponsor and, in turn, we're an outlier in the subsidy."
UConn's subsidy roughly represents, or is close to, the amount of money Power 5 programs reel in from lucrative conference TV deals. And over the years, with success leading to higher ambitions and escalating costs, UConn has essentially operated like a P5 department even while squeezed by the realities of conference realignment. The gap continued to widen.
It's time for a step back, not a collage of small fixes in the form of cuts that are detrimental to a way of operating for UConn's top programs. The university can move forward with 16 teams on solid ground, none of them left to worry whether what was proposed or adopted in June 2020 wasn't enough. You need both basketball programs, in particular, sparing no expense.
Cutting sports is the most drastic measure a university can consider. It's what no one wants. Until it's necessary.
"And it's one of the reasons why you're not going to get too many athletic directors talking publicly about it," Benedict said. "Yes. Is that something that I believe has to be looked at and discussed? I believe so. But that's all I would be able to say at this point."
I say do it. Don't cut two sports to save about $1 million a year. Cut eight and save about $5 million a year.
And you're halfway home.
The Board of Trustees should accept a proposal to assign a reduced value to athletic scholarships, the athletic department's greatest expense.
"That will be part of our plan," Benedict said.
UConn, for instance, currently counts each out-of-state athletic scholarship the same as tuition for any out-of-state student, roughly three times the rate of in-state tuition. If that can be reduced-and it's nothing more than a change in numbers and a budget transfer-the subsidy shrinks by another $4 million or so.
There. With a reduction to 16 sports, preserving the most high-profile teams, you're just about at $10 million saved.
Honor the scholarships of student-athletes in eliminated programs and move forward with basketball muscle at the front of a sustainable operation.
Many universities are eliminating sports. East Carolina, which was second to UConn among AAC schools in sports sponsored with 20, announced Thursday it would cut four (men's and women's swimming and diving, and men's and women's tennis) to get to 16.
COVID-19 has wreaked financial havoc that will only increase over time if the football season, and possibly others, are canceled or altered. UConn's athletic financial trouble isn't new, though. This is the continuation of a money-in-money-out conversation that has been taking place for years, and Benedict has spoken a number of times about at least entertaining the elimination of some sports.
Deciding which ones to cut is complicated, from money saved to Title IX implications considered. But there are obviously untouchable programs (baseball, soccer, field hockey, ice hockey, more) and more vulnerable programs (golf, rowing, tennis, swimming, more). All non-revenue sports without much of a following should be up for dismissal. As much as I hate it. As difficult as it would be for Benedict. As unbearable as it would be for some students, coaches, support staff and families.
The health of the entire department-and university, for that matter-is on the line.
A return to the Big East will bring in more money based on performance and, eventually, TV revenue and NCAA Tournament "units," earnings shared by conference members generated by postseason appearances and victories. Travel will be cheaper. AAC exit fees will be paid off. Big East entry fees, too. Maybe even football, with attractive schedules and a solid TV deal, can become a healthy revenue generator at one point.
The ledger, though, has to be balanced in ways beyond waiting for money to roll in.
June 12 and June 24 are right around the corner.
I suspect UConn will conclude that carrying 24 sports is no longer sustainable.
Asked what UConn athletics should look like for years to come, Benedict said, "What it's looked like in the recent past, which is competitive excellence, academic success, great experiences for student-athletes. ... Regardless of what is determined we have to do, it will all be significant. When you're talking about reducing 25 percent of a subsidy, or 10 million dollars, it's significant under any scenario."
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